Clear as Glass, Part VIII, Cobblers

This chapter is part of a continuing investigation of a beautiful but damaged collection of photographs taken a century ago. To start at the beginning of the mystery and see the images follow this post…The Bicyclist or pick up with any of the Clear As Glass series……

It might be that an important clue has surfaced in the search for the identity of the  image maker who left behind a weathered collection of glass plate negatives from a century ago. In searching for a clue in the sequence or order of the photographs that span several years before and after the first world war, I began grouping them by several commonalities-locations, dates, subject matter, condition, even people that reappear in more than one photo. In the grouping by businesses there were five unusual portraits of cobblers and shoemakers, three showing the tradesmen standing in front of their storefronts and two delving into the shops, right up to the counters and workbenches. I was immediately drawn to the cobbler on crutches.


Barely a fancy shoe to be seen in this March, 1921 interior photograph of a boot shop with daylight casting shadows through the storefront window and the sun shining on the two aproned cobblers.  Somehow the larger, steady man with a crutch under his arm and eye-shade on his head suggests someone who has seen the battlefield, perhaps a wounded veteran of the great war. The muster at Camp Lewis in 1917 included cavalry with horses and mules, saddles and tack and the need for artisans skilled in leather work. His story might be mixed with the madness of mounted cavalry charging into machine gun fire and mustard gas at the battle of Ypres or Argonne Forest.

The other, long sleeved man in blurred motion, might handle the more dexterous matters of the shop, lacing boots, threading the leather serger, and making change and small talk with customers. This is unmistakably a cash business with no register on the counter and a clear, loud position on paying later expressed in the banner sign. In 1921, city people and wage earners spent vastly more time on their feet than today, walking, standing, and working.  A sturdy pair of  men’s shoes might cost 4 or 5 bucks but new leather soles and hard rubber heels might be less than a dollar. Most people wore the same shoes every day and depended on footwear that lasted through several sets of heels and soles. Cobblers were needed tradesmen and everybody had a trusted shoemaker.


A cobbler’s work was mostly done by hand and this tiny one-man shoe repair operation is fascinating for its details and character study. It was only after I enlarged the image that I realized it advanced my search for the identity of the photographer with a few wonderful clues. Looking closely at the task at hand, I could see that the stone faced cobbler was working on a leather bicycle seat and there behind him was the bike. Again a bicycle and in this picture I imagined a bargain between the photographer and his subject, a new seat for a workplace portrait. Maybe, just maybe, the photographer and the bicyclist in other photographs are the same person. And maybe I am finally cobbling together a chance to look at the object of my search.


The storefront photos in the cobbler series have a singularity about them. In each image the cobbler alone in front of his shop, displaying more than they may intend about the work they do. In this tidy enterprise, where the work is NEATLY DONE as advertised on the glass, the cobbler wears a white shirt, bow tie and vest under his apron. There is the fresh smell of shaving soap in the air from the barber shop next door and two pairs of fancy city shoes in the window. His intense stare and glasses in his hand tell you that quality matters for this downtown craftsman.

cobbler 5.en

Not so much for this country cobbler who takes a more rugged approach to his work. No fussy mustache wax or hair combing here. His cloth apron has an upper coat of hard leather armor and there are no promises about neatness on the cracked glass window sign. The shoe boxes in the window hold high top boots and the calloused hand holding a cigarette has a leathery curl.  Still this cobbler has a foothold in his timber community, probably Wilkerson.


Finally I am returning to this image that I studied previously in Part IV. The cobbler is Per Norder in front of his well mannered “shoe hospital” on South Tacoma Way. I knew the photograph had one of the clearest window reflections of the mystery photographer but I dismissed it since his face was indistinguishable. But in revisiting the image and doing some enhancement I recognized a couple of othercobbler.4.crop detail.2 features. The photographer standing behind his camera and tripod is clearly wearing a distinctive high white collar and a soft newsboy cap. Other reflections show the cap more clearly but this one is unmistakable when it comes to the collar, and I have seen the high collar before in the glass plate photos.

So I’m thinking my photographer likes high collars and bicycles and may occasionally take his own picture rather than just capture it unintentionally in a window reflection. Maybe this is all circumstantial or misdirected but in the collection of glass plate negatives are three photos of a young man with a bicycle and a propensity for a high white collar and soft newsboy cap. In fact this series started with a post called The Bicyclist and I think he is the person who made the photographs. If you have been following this series of posts about an orphaned collection of century old glass negatives and my quixotic search for the identity of the photographer see what you think and let me know.

boys by the tracks j



Now comes his name and story……….




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